Study Guide

Divergent Themes

By Veronica Roth

  • Identity

    Besides getting into Dauntless and stopping a war, Tris's other big adventure in Divergent is figuring out who she is. But identity isn't just about what's inside Tris (ew, organs)—it's also about her relationships with family and friends (and society in general). A big part of identity here is figuring out where you fit in. Which is pretty hard for most young people, including Tris. Instead of being able to be happy in one of the factions, Tris's main identity is (spoiler alert if you missed it in the title) that she's Divergent. That means that no matter how hard she tries, she's never going to fit into her world.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Do any other characters (besides Tris and Four) seem to have troubles with their identity? Does brother Caleb seem to have any troubles with his identity? Why or why not?
    2. Is there anything in our lives today that matches up with the Choosing Ceremony? It doesn't have to be a perfect match, but is there anything close? And if so, what are the differences?
    3. Besides name-changing, how else do people change their outward identity (appearance, relationships with other people, eating different breakfast cereal) in the novel?
    4. Could you rewrite this book with a younger or an older protagonist? Would this issue of identity be the same if Tris were in elementary school or was middle aged?

    Chew on This

    In Divergent, identity is about how you act with the people around you, not what you think.

    Identity in Divergent is revealed most in times of trouble and stress: anyone can be calm when they're eating a hamburger, but only someone who is really calm can be calm when there are gunfights going on.

  • Fear

    Courage may be what the Dauntless are known, but in reality, they're more focused on fear. for Throughout Divergent, we see the characters questioning the nature of bravery and fear: Is true courage fighting someone or stepping up to protect someone? Is fear something you can leave behind or something you have to overcome every time? Eventually Tris comes to realize that bravery isn't about getting tattoos—it's about standing up for what she believes in: "ordinary acts of bravery" (16.136). And thanks to the Dauntless initiation method—which involves lots of "facing your fears"—we get to see a lot of what Tris is afraid of.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What fears do you have (living in the 21st century—or wherever you are, time traveler accessing this Shmoop page) that Tris and her friends don't?
    2. What character do you think deals with their fear best and how do they do so? Is there a lesson about how we should deal with our fears? In other words, is this secretly a self-help book?
    3. Are fears more useful than dangerous? Or more dangerous than useful? Do fears lead people into acting stupidly? Do we see any examples of this in the novel?
    4. Is there a difference between the ways specific fears are dealt with vs. general fears? (For instance, Four's fear of his dad is very specific—it's not about dads in general; but Tris's fears about not being in control are pretty general—there are lots and lots of times when she could lose control.)

    Chew on This

    We see fear in many different forms and at many different times because fear is the most important human feeling in this book. (Which is sad.)

    Fear actually makes Tris more alive and excited, which is why it's dangerous. She might continue to do dangerous things just for fun.

  • Society and Class

    In Divergent, society is organized by faction. Just about everything about this society comes down to what faction people belong to: their jobs (Erudite teach, while Amity counsel), where they live, who they marry, what they wear, what they do for fun (Dauntless go zip lining, while Abnegation like to knit). Divergent never quite explains how this division of society actually took place, but from what we see in this book, it doesn't seem like it's going all that well. By the end of the novel, two of the five factions are a wreck, and they're about to bring the fight to a third. But what will follow the five-faction society? Peace? Chaos? A rump state? No seriously, that's a thing.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Do any characters offer different schemes for the organization of society? For instance, Jeanine Matthews wants Erudite to be in charge, but does she want to keep the five-faction system in place?
    2. Are all the factions necessary? Are any of the factions inherently better than any of the other factions?
    3. Are there any divisions in our society (race, class, gender, sexuality, handedness, Marvel vs. DC) that exist in the society of Divergent?
    4. Is there any way to save the five-faction system? Is it worth saving? Do the lives of the average people seem better in this five-faction system than in some other system?

    Chew on This

    Divergent shows that this society is unstable—but only because of the actions of particular individuals, not society's overall structure.

    The five-faction system only works because anyone who doesn't fit in can be cast into the factionless group and tossed out with the trash.

  • Family

    In Divergent, family is who you are before you get a chance to decide your identity. For Beatrice, this isn't just a case of what her parents named her (a name which she leaves behind when she joins Dauntless); it's more a case of what her family has taught her to be (a good little Abnegation) and how much guilt she feels about leaving that identity behind. In other words, although these people keep saying "faction before blood," family is actually how little kids get raised up in a faction. Beatrice struggles with her Abnegation instincts because her family raised her to be Abnegation.

    Questions About Family

    1. Besides Tris's and Four's families, what other families do we see or hear about? What about Al's relationship with his family or Uriah's relationship with his? Are all families different or are there some similarities?
    2. In Divergent, are families more positive or negative for the main characters? Do families twist people against their wishes? Or do families support people's choices? And what about the older characters, like Tris's parents? Does family help them or hurt them?
    3. Can you imagine a scenario where the children's families do not affect their faction choices? Is there a way for all the kids to be raised without faction-affiliation?
    4. Are there any characters that don't have family? (Or rather, characters who have family—everyone has parents at least—but whose families we don't see?) For example, what do we know about Peter's family? Or Eric's family? Or Jeanine's family? What can we guess?

    Chew on This

    In Divergent, family is the source of the most persistent forms of identity. You can't shake the affect your parents had on you (sadly).

    Divergent teaches us that we need to get away from our families to really find out what choices we want to make.

  • Friendship

    When you're living in Chicago after the apocalypse (or, really, Chicago even before the apocalypse), it's useful to have friends who will support you. Especially if you've just abandoned your family and are facing competition from some power-hungry enemies. But as helpful as friends can be (unless they're mind-controlled), it can sometimes be hard to deal with friends, especially if you haven't had them before. Divergent's Tris is new to the whole friends thing, so when she's trying to figure out her identity, she also has to work through friend stuff, too.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Is friendship ever a bad thing in this book? Are there any friendships that aren't good for Tris? 
    2. How do characters deal with their friendlessness and loneliness? Or does everyone have at least one friend?
    3. How does Tris manage when she has different groups of friends, like the transfers and the Dauntless initiates? Is there any way to safely balance those two groups? Or does she just have to do her usual (that is, feel guilty)?
    4. How do friends help or harm Tris's search for identity? And what about Four—is he a friend who helps or harms her search for identity, or is being a boyfriend something totally different?

    Chew on This

    Friends in Divergent are the kind of people you can tell secrets to. That means Tris doesn't really have any friends.

    In Divergent, no adults have friends—they have co-conspirators and family, but no friends.

  • Power

    In Divergent, power is all about making other people do what you want them to do. (It's kind of like advertising in that way.) There's the straightforward power of Dauntless, who beat people up and destroy things. Then there's the more complicated, more manipulative power of Erudite, who want to control things, either through newspapers changing people's opinions or just, you know, controlling people's minds directly. And then there's Abnegation, whose power lies in sacrifice, which makes them stand out.

    Questions About Power

    1. Do the characters use their power for good or evil more in this book? Is there a comment about power in general here? When is power at its best?
    2. Who is the most powerful character in the book? Where does that power come from? When is that person most powerless?
    3. How does personal power (Tris's power with a gun, for instance) relate to social power (like which faction controls the government)?
    4. Does this book show us what the Abnegation government uses its power for? Does it show us what each other faction uses its power for?

    Chew on This

    Whenever some character in Divergent experiences some moment of powerlessness, some other character comes along to help, because power is best in a community (friends, family, fellow fans).

    The only thing that can stop power in Divergent is guilt—which the villains never seem to feel.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Divergent has a lot of hard choices, and some of those choices lead to some major guilt on Tris's part. Her guilt is tied to an immense sense of responsibility. Because she's Divergent, she has ties across the different factions, which means she feels she owe a lot of different people a lot of different things: leaving her family; lying to her friends; shooting Will in the head, the list goes on.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. How does Tris deal with her feelings of guilt in the book? Does the book show any better methods of dealing with guilt? Is there anything like redemption in this book or does Tris just go on feeling guilty forever?
    2. What do Tris and the other characters feel most guilty about? Is it betrayal of the family (see Tris, Al, Caleb)? Or do they feel worse about betraying friend and faction? (Or put it this way: if Tris had to choose between betraying friends and betraying family, does the book help her decide?)
    3. How are people punished for their actions in Divergent? Are there police? Detention for bad students? Or is the only punishment just "you'll feel bad if you break the law"?
    4. Do the villains here (Jeanine, Peter, Eric, Marcus) ever seem to feel guilty? If so, when?

    Chew on This

    Guilt is useful as a way to control people; in Divergent, making others feel guilty is another way to have "power" over them. Lesson: don't feel guilty.

    Tris seems more like a human being because she feels guilty about hurting others—but hurts them anyway. Hey, no one ever said she's good people. But she is people.

  • Competition

    If Dauntless's theme weren't bravery, it would probably be competition. They've got boxing matches, paintball skirmishes, muffin shooting, and even Capture the Flag. But this isn't just fun, "let's play a game"-style competition. They're not just playing endless Words with Friends tourneys. Dauntless competition is life-and-death stuff. And that's even before we get into the political competition for power in the city.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Is competition mostly a Dauntless thing, or do the other factions have internal competition? Do you think there's an Abnegation competition for "most self-sacrificing"?
    2. Is there a difference between friendly competition and hostile competition? Is there any friendly competition in the this book?
    3. When is competition one-on-one and when is competition team-vs.-team? Are those different types of competition dealt with differently?
    4. Are the competitions in Divergent usually fair? Does fairness even matter here?

    Chew on This

    In Divergent, people show their true selves when they're competing, whether that competition is fun-and-games or life-and-death.

    Divergent shows us that people constantly struggle with two urges: the urge to compete and beat others; and the urge to help others.

  • Choices

    Shmoopers, the tagline for this book is, "One Choice Can Transform You," so it's not like we're reaching here. In Divergent, the choice of faction is the most important choice that a person can make, or at least, that's what they believe. And sure, that one choice does dictate a lot about your life, from what job you have to what you wear. But there are other, smaller choices that the characters make every day that can have huge and lasting effects.

    Questions About Choices

    1. How do people (okay, just Tris) make choices in this book? Does Tris choose things because they seem easy or hard or fun? Or because her identity makes her choose? Are her choices limited by her family or her society?
    2. If someone makes the wrong choice, how do they fix that? Do they just feel guilty forever and ever? Is it possible to fix wrong choices (or as we call them, mistakes)? 
    3. When Tris chooses a faction, she goes back and forth, not sure what choice to make. How does she think about that confusion?
    4. What helps her make up her mind? Is Tris helped to switch factions by the fact that other people (including her brother) made that choice before her?
    5. Do other characters make choices in this book? Do those characters discuss the thought process that goes into those choices?
    6. How does it make you feel when some characters don't seem to have much choice about what they do?

    Chew on This

    It's okay to make a wrong choice in Divergent because every mistake is a learning experience that will help the character the next time. (Or so we keep telling ourselves.)

    The only characters who succeed in this book are those who contemplate all the options and choose among them. Anyone doing things by habit or without thought ends up making a mess, like shooting a friend in the head. Tris, we're looking at you.

  • Secrets

    Secrets are those pesky little things that (a) keep Tris from feeling really close to her friends and family and (b) protect Tris from her enemies, who would kill her if they knew her secrets. (Secret #1: She's Divergent. Secret #2: She didn't love The Avengers.) Because she wants to keep her secrets, Tris ends up lying to several of her friends. But at the same time, almost all of the villains here have secrets that they use to manipulate and have power over others. Secrets give you power, sure, but they can also threaten that power, which is something Tris knows all too well.

    Questions About Secrets

    1. What's the difference between a good reason to hide a secret (like "they'll kill you if they find out you're Divergent, Tris, so maybe don't tell them") and a bad reason to hide a secret? Are there good reasons to hide secrets from friends? Or only from enemies?
    2. Who has no (or the least number of) secrets? Christina? Al? How does that lack of secrets change the way they interact with other characters? Is it easier to live without secrets, like the Candor do?
    3. How would this novel be different with a Candor protagonist, someone who had no secrets? Would Tris get along better if she kept no secrets?
    4. What secret most surprised you in this book? Was it Tris's mom's secrets of being Divergent and born into Dauntless? Or Caleb's secret of loving knowledge and switching to Erudite? Or Eric's secret of working with Jeanine? Was it more surprising when a friend or loved one had a secret or more surprising when an enemy had a secret?
    5. Do secrets always lead to lies in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Divergent shows us that secrets are like power: they're not good or bad in the abstract—but they become good or bad when they're used for good or bad reasons.

    Everyone in Divergent has to have secrets because secrets are an important part of identity.